"I had to guard the empty room": the emergence of meaningless jobs

Original author: David Graeber
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Copy and paste e-mail texts. Inventing mindless tasks for others. Creating the appearance of turbulent activity. Why do so many people consider their work completely unnecessary?

Shoot me: does your job bring benefit to someone?

Once in my office the shelves fell. As a result, the books were scattered across the floor, and a torn piece of metal trusses that used to hold a shelter hung over my desk. I am a professor of anthropology at the university. An hour later, a carpenter came to me to study the damage, and sullenly informed that since the books are scattered on the floor, the safety rules forbid him to enter the room and do something there. I had to collect all the books in piles, and nothing more to do, after which he will come again at the earliest opportunity.

The carpenter never came. Every day, someone from the anthropological department called, often several times, to find out about the fate of a carpenter who always had a more urgent job. By the end of the week it became clear that the whole complex of buildings was served by one person whose job was only to apologize for the fact that the carpenter was not coming. He was a nice man. Yet it is rather difficult to assume that he liked his work.

Everyone is familiar with this kind of work, which for an outside observer seems to be doing nothing: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, lawyers of organizations, or those people who collect committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees. And what if these works are really useless, and those who are engaged in them understand this? Could there be something more demoralizing than the need for an adult to wake up early in the morning, five days out of seven, in order to fulfill a task that he considers an unnecessary, waste of resources, or even worsening the world? There are many polls about whether people like their work, but what about the question of whether people think their work has a reason to exist? I decided to investigate this phenomenon by interviewing more than 250 people from around the world who believe that they had,

What is a worthless job?

Its main feature is the following: it is so meaningless that even a person who has to deal with it every day cannot convince himself of the existence of sufficient grounds for its implementation. He may not admit this to his colleagues — and often there are reasons for such behavior — but he himself will be convinced that his work has no meaning.

A worthless job is not just useless work; usually it should include a certain amount of pretense and deception. The employee should feel obliged to pretend that there are reasons for the existence of work, even if in a confidential environment he considers it nonsense.

When people talk about worthless work, they usually mean working for a salary on someone else, for a salary or piecework. Obviously, there are a lot of self-employed people who manage to pull money from others on the basis that they pretend to provide some useful services (usually we call them scammers, charlatans and swindlers), just as there are people receiving money from others at risk of harm (robbers, burglars, extortionists or thieves). In the first case, of course, we can talk about worthlessness, but not worthless work, since this is not work, strictly speaking. A fraudster on trust is a role, not a profession. People sometimes talk about professional criminals, but this is just a figure of speech, denoting that the extraction of money by illegal means is the main source of income for a person.

These reflections allow us to formulate what I think can serve as a final working definition of worthless work: the kind of paid classes that are so useless, unnecessary, or destructive that even the worker himself cannot justify his existence, although, in terms of working conditions, he feels self obliged to pretend that it is not.

Five types of worthless work


They are given minor tasks designed to justify their existence, but these are only pretexts. In fact, lackey works exist only to make a person look or feel important. The classic footman is Steve, who told me, “I just received a diploma, and my new job is that my boss forwards me emails with the postscript:“ Steve, message below, ”and I reply to him that this letter - unnecessary or spam.

The most obvious example is the doormen. They have been doing the same work in the homes of wealthy people, which electronic intercoms have been doing for everyone else since the 1950s. In some countries, for example, in Brazil, in some homes, uniforms are still working in uniforms, whose job is to press a button for you. Other examples are receptionist administrators in places where they are obviously not needed. Other lackeys work for the sake of visibility importance. This includes employees making cold calls trying to reach potential customers on the basis that the broker they work for is so busy making money that he needs assistants to make calls.


In the work of such people there is an element of aggression, but, in fact, they exist only because other people also hire such people. The most obvious example is the national armed forces. Countries need armies only because other countries also have armies. If no one had armies, armies would not be needed. The same can be said about the majority of lobbyists, PR-specialists, telemarketers and lawyers of organizations.

Thugs consider their work unpleasant, not only because they believe that there is no positive in it, but also because they consider it manipulative and aggressive. Many call center employees can be counted among them: “You make an active negative contribution to people's lives,” explained in one anonymous confession. “I called people to give them useless garbage: especially access to their“ credit history ”, which they can get for free, and we offered it with some useless additives for £ 6.99 per month.”

Plugging holes

Such work exists only because of problems or shortcomings in the organization. People in such positions solve a problem that should not exist at all. The most obvious examples are people whose task is to solve the mistakes made by incompetent or awkward bosses.

Many works on plugging holes come from system flaws that no one bothered to fix - these are tasks that are easy to automate, but this did not happen either because there is no one to do it, or because the manager wants to keep as many employees as possible due to structural deficiencies.

Magda’s job was to read the research reports written by the chief statistical researcher at her company. “The man did not understand statistics at all, and it was difficult for him to give grammatically correct sentences. I rewarded myself with a cake when I found a coherent paragraph. At work in this company, I lost six kilograms. My task was to convince him to recycle every report he issued. Of course, he never agreed to change anything, so I had to bear the report to the directors. But they, without understanding statistics, delayed the process even more. ”

Stacking ticks

Such people exist only, or mainly, so that the organization can declare that it does something definite, which, in fact, it does not. The saddest thing in such work is that the worker usually understands that his actions not only do not bring him closer to the imaginary goal of work, but even undermine it, because they divert time and resources from the meaning of work.

We all are familiar with this ticking officials. If a government official is caught on something very bad — on bribes, for example, or on citizens shooting at traffic lights — the first reaction is always the creation of a “fact-finding commission”, which must get to the bottom of it. This achieves two goals. First, it is a way of insisting that, except for a small group of villains, no one suspected what was happening (this, of course, is rarely true). Secondly, it is a way to make it clear that when all the facts are gathered, someone will definitely do something about it (and this is also usually not true).

Local governments are almost entirely an endless sequence of rituals for ticking related to monthly “plans.” Private companies have many ways to hire people to convince themselves that they are doing something, although in reality it is not. Many large corporations, for example, produce their own magazines or even television channels, whose alleged meaning is to keep employees informed about interesting news and events, but in fact they exist practically only so that directors can experience this warm, pleasant feeling that visits a person. when he sees mention of himself in the media.


These fall into two categories. The first includes people whose role is solely to distribute work to others. This work can be considered worthless if the warden believes that there is no need for their intervention, and that if they were not, their subordinates would have been able to handle this on their own.

And although the first category of wardens is simply useless, the second does real harm. These are those whose main role is to invent worthless work for others, to supervise the performance of worthless work, or even to create whole worthless vacancies.

The warden may spend at least 75% of the time in distributing tasks and tracking their performance by subordinates, although he has no reason to believe that the subordinates would behave somehow differently if there were no warden at all.

The “strategic missions” (or, even worse, the “strategic vision documents”) terrify the scientists. Basically, this is how corporate governance technologies - the appointment of quantitatively defined methods of performance evaluation, forcing teachers and researchers to spend more time on evaluating their activities, and less time on the activities themselves - are being introduced into academic life.

I must add that there is only one class of people, not only who do not deny the futility of their work, but also hostile to the very idea that our economy is full of worthless works. This is - quite predictably - business owners and other people involved in hiring and firing. They insist that no one will ever spend a company’s money on an unnecessary employee. All people who are convinced that their work is useless are mistaken, have inflated self-conceit, or do not understand their real function, which is visible only to their superiors. Based on this, there is a temptation to conclude that this is the only class of people who really do not understand that their own work is worthless.

Do you have a worthless job?

The following owners of such works confirm that all the suffering comes from the fact that the only difficulty that can be overcome in such work is the difficulty to recognize the fact that your work does not cause you any difficulties. When the only way to practice your skills is to come up with creative methods of hiding the fact that you have nothing to train your skills on. When you have to live with the fact that you, absolutely against your will, turn into a parasite and a crook. They all wished to remain anonymous.

Guarding an empty room

I worked as a security guard at a museum for a global security company, and in this museum one room was not used. My job was to guard this empty room, and to ensure that none of the museum visitors touched anything in this room — although there was nothing there — and would not start a fire. And in order to maintain my consciousness in an insightful state and not distract attention, I was forbidden to engage in any form of mental stimulation - books, telephone, etc. Since there was never anyone there, I just sat still and beat back and forth for seven and a half hours, waiting for the fire alarm to turn on. And if she turned on, then I had to calmly get up and go out. That's all.

Copy and Paste

I had one duty: to keep track of the inbox where letters of a certain type came from employees who needed technical support, which I had to copy and paste into another form. It was not just a textbook example of automated work, in fact it was already automated. Just between managers there were differences that led to standardization, abolished this automation.

Imitation of hectic activity

I was hired for a temporary position, but no responsibilities were assigned. I was told that it was very important that I was busy, but I could not play games or surf the net. My main function was, apparently, to hold a chair and contribute to the decoration of the office. At first it seemed easy, but I quickly discovered that looking busy when you're not busy is one of the least pleasant office work you can imagine. After two days it became clear that this would be the worst job I ever had. I installed Lynx, a text browser that looks like DOS from the side. No pictures, only text of the same color on a black background. After this pointless scrolling of web pages it seemed to work as an experienced technician, and the web browser looked like a terminal that accepted commands that imitated my efficiency.

Sitting in the right place

In the summer I work in a college dorm. I have been in this position for three years now, and it is still not clear to me what my real responsibilities are. Basically, it seems that my job is that I physically occupy a place at the reception. In the process, I am free to “take care of my own affairs,” which basically is the creation of rubber balls from rubber bands, which I find in classrooms. When I don’t do this, I can check the working mailing address (but since I do not have the skills or administrative capabilities, I can only redirect this mail to the boss), transfer boxes from the door where they are left to the parcel room, answer calls (again, I don’t know anything, so I rarely can satisfy the callers), or I find ketchup bags from 2005 in the drawers of the tables.

An excerpt from the book "worthless work: the theory" (c) 2018 (Bullshit Jobs: A Theory)

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